Shy, or Just a Stage?
Since many children will feel or act shy at some point during their childhood, how can you tell if your baby or young child is temperamentally inclined toward shyness? Parents of shy children say that they just knew -- and early on. "Maisy never engaged people on the street, and she'd turn her head away or bury her face into me so that people could not see her if they approached us," Hoffman says.
Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety can create shy behavior, but a truly shy baby or toddler won't be wary only of new people or upset when you leave. She'll also be less willing to reach for a new toy and more reluctant to be put down in a strange place, and she'll continue to be cautious as she gets older. "There are three things we look for with shyness," says Barbara Markway, PhD, author of Nurturing the Shy Child (St. Martin's). "There's behavior -- avoiding eye contact, turning the head away, or hiding behind the mother. There are physical manifestations of anxiety -- heart racing, blushing, or crying or thrashing about for a baby. And finally, there are thoughts and feelings. Older kids say things like, 'Everyone's staring at me' or 'I don't know what to say.' It doesn't go away either. It's an enduring, recurring thing."
Parenting the Shy Child
Some parents feel that it's important to accept a shy child the way she is. Others focus more on teaching a child to interact more comfortably in social situations. Ultimately, it's best to combine support with encouragement. "The goal is not to eliminate shyness but to help the child work within her own personality to do the things she wants to do," Markway says. Some techniques to help your child:
- Show him the way. Other parents may be sitting on the benches while you join in at the sandbox, but if your child needs you there so he'll feel safe, it's worth a little sand in your shoes.
- Set the stage. Encourage family and friends to work with your child. Tell them that she's shy or slow to warm up. Ask them to give her time to observe and adjust to a new situation.
- Find a balance. "Take your child's social temperature," says Gilbert. "You don't want to remove a child from every uncomfortable situation. Learning to deal with anxiety is part of life." However, if it's two hours into a party and she hasn't left your side, it's time to go home. Once there, help by giving her words to use when joining another child at play. She may never be at the center of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but she can learn to take a turn -- if she wants to.
- Help your child discover his strengths. "Elliot is a great observer of people," says Laura Gasiorek, of Greensboro, North Carolina, regarding her shy son, 3. "He understands their personalities and emotions because he's not talking; he's looking and thinking. He actually relates really well to his peers." As you help your child to become more socially adept, remind him that you're teaching these skills so that he'll feel more comfortable and be able to enjoy himself, not because you wish he were different.
"Not every child has to be a social butterfly," says Markway, and Hoffman agrees. "I was shy, and Maisy is shy, and it's not a bad thing," she says. "I just wish I'd accepted her the way she is sooner and not worried about what everyone else thinks."